When I started as an English professor at NYIT's Old Westbury campus, it was a fall semester in 1985, and I taught the course Composition and Literature. We read everything from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to poems by Robert Frost and Sharon Olds. NYIT had recently won an Annenberg grant to experiment with new forms of communication, a mission we were entrusted along with Gallaudet University's programs for the deaf.
We used an in-class chat room as one new form of communication. Students accessed it by logging into the software program Real-Time Writer on computers. The program was served via a local area network available only to students enrolled in NYIT classes (three other English professors also taught chat-room-enhanced writing courses at the time.) I divided my students into groups of five and asked them to have "written conversations" in the chat room about the literature read in class.
It felt weird for everyone to be having so much dialogue in a silent classroom. I allowed students to be anonymous, assigning them numbers only I knew belonged to them. This caused something of a quiet riot! We discovered few people really listen to others and how wearing a digital mask can make some people feel invincible. One can be a great listener and be hard of hearing or have an "elephant's ear" and be a poor listener. We learned the value of listening with all our senses, a deep lesson even more relevant today. Printing out the chat room conversations proved illuminating and humbling for all.
I am proud to say this project also brought to the fore a few students wise and brave enough to take a stand against common prejudices. For example, one female student defended another student from insults about his appearance. When she was subsequently ridiculed, two different female students from two groups came to her defense. After a heated exchange, we managed to have a frank discussion about how hidden aggression against others lurks beneath human communications, motivating people to scapegoat others and often leading to the formation of stereotypes.
This project was an amazing learning experience. I went on to write and publish the article "Under Erasure," examining how people communicate when the borders between writing, talking, and thinking appear suspended. Read the article in the international journal Computers and Composition.
This content is part of The Box's "60 Years in 60 Days" series in celebration of NYIT's 60th anniversary in 2015.